Tuesday, November 9, 2010 arrived with a clear early morning that promised to become a chilly, sunny, and typically autumn day. I zipped my coat, buckled my helmet strap, unlocked my bike, and headed off to work. A few minutes later, a garbage truck crossed a bike lane to make a right turn. I was in that bike lane. The tires of the truck crushed my left leg and caused other internal injuries. An amazing team of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my leg to do so.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Confucius.

In July 2011, I set off to walk a thousand miles as an above-knee amputee in my new prosthesis. The journey has held more twists, turns, and detours than I ever imagined.

I reached Mile 1000 on March 30, 2013.

But of course, that wasn't the end.

I'll keep walking!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bionic Bowling

Mile Marker 870:

Under the neon lights of Lucky Strike Lanes, even gutter balls have glamour.

Our school staff holiday party happens here every year.  But I've been out of the bowling loop for a while.  Since December 2009, to be exact.  That year, I set the school's low score record.  In the first game, I bowled an 8; the second, a 25.

With 2 legs.

This year, I'm back.   And better yet, BIONIC.  Word on the street (started by me, of course) is that I'm going to break my own score barrier.  "With a prosthesis," I joke to my colleagues, "I'll be a better bowler."   And it's a pretty safe bet.   With scores that low, there's nowhere to go but up.

In case you're wondering, my fancy Genium knee does not have a "bowling mode."  Or at least I didn't have the forethought to ask Prosthetist Tim to program one!

Fueling up at Fergie's!
On the last day of school before winter break, the special ed team sets off for a pre-party lunch -- Chase, Corrine, Bethany, Jon and me.  As we walk several blocks from Chestnut to Sansom Street, we realize it's our first true MILE together.

Fergie's Pub is surprisingly crowded for lunch time -- or maybe it's just that we teachers don't get out much!  Either way, if the sweet potato fries are any indication, it's going to be a high-scoring afternoon.


An hour or so later, I fasten my Genium's first pair of bowling shoes.  (Note the kid-style velcro... I may have gotten a new leg, but my feet haven't grown any!)

Other teachers have already started bowling around us.  Among the fluorescent lights and music, Corrine and Bethany type our names into the electronic scorer.

Before I even pick up a bowling ball, I notice how slippery the floors are.  It's like the white soles of the bowling shoes are coated with Vaseline!

Chase hands me a 6-pound ball and spots me as I take my place the head of our lane.  "Don't go past this line," she points.  "It's even more slippery there."

And... GUTTER BALL!
I try imitate the other bowlers -- to get a running start and lunge as I release the ball.  But ask my pals at the rehab gym -- I am not much of a runner or a lunger...


No records yet, but at least
I'm not alone!
After watching me toss the ball into the gutter for several turns, Bethany asks curiously, "Are you looking at the arrows?"  I've deemed her the most professional bowler on our team. (Rumor has it, once she even bowled in a league.)

"Which arrows?" I reply.

She points them out.  And I realize they've been there all the time, about 10 feet from away from me, lined up in V-formation like a flock of birds heading south.

"Aim for the center one," she says.

I do.  And I hit ONE PIN!

Well, a taste of success is all this team needs.  Don't forget, we're teachers.

A frame or two later, Bethany suggests I squat instead of using my awkward, unstable lunge.  "That's supposed to HELP your momentum," she tells me.  But I agree with her.  It's not helping at all.  It's throwing me -- and my ball -- off balance.

Blinkin' lights and all!
Then Chase recommends I stand at the line, rather than attempting a running start.  I follow her lead.  After all, she's earned an honor of her own today -- winner of the school's ugly sweater contest!


In the next few frames, I earn a sprinkling of 3's and 6's.  And then behold, an 8 -- a Christmas miracle!

When 10 frames are over, I've hit my HIGH SCORE record.  A whopping 31.  And to add to the glory, I haven't even come in last!

Still, my colleagues can rest easy this holiday season.  Even as a bionic bowler, I'm not much of a threat.

But watch out everybody.  Practice makes perfect.

My Genium and I will see you next year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Naughty or Ni(e)ce


Mile Marker 855:

You better watch out, you better not cry…

My niece Riley is going to see Santa today, and boy is she psyched!  She thinks he's gonna bring her that "Peppa Pig House" she wants for Christmas.  Right now, I mean.

When you’re 2 ½, there’s a fine line between asking and getting.  And don't even try to explain NAUGHTY or NICE.

Santa's up ahead, sitting in his big North Pole chair.  We scoop nephew Brennan -- still sleeping -- out of his stroller.  His wide eyes pop open as my sister tugs off his fleece jacket and hat.   We plop him down on the big man's lap, happily clueless.  

Noooo!!!
Poor Riley, on the other hand, is on to our trickery!  Who's this guy with the scratchy beard and why is there no Peppa Pig House in sight?!

When we escape the clutches of Santa, Riley takes comfort in the “farm” (a.k.a. live nativity scene) around the corner.  This girl's a Vermonter through and through! 

A self-portrait :)
We visit the carousel at Franklin Square.  I lift Riley onto her zebra and hold her steady as the jerky ride goes round and round.

Then, we hit the slide.  It seems my Genium is determined to get on the NICE list this year.



The next day, I host lunch for my oldest niece Brianna, my friend Suzanne, and her daughter Maddie.


“Did he say he was sorry?” Brianna asks.  Out of the blue, she's talking about the trash truck driver who hit me.

We've just baked brownies with Santa hats, so I’m not sure why the conversation has taken this turn – to the accident, to my robot leg.

I manage a nod.  "Mmm-hmm."

My mouth is full of pizza -- not so full that I can’t answer, but it's all I can squeeze out at the moment. How can I explain the complexities of blame or the logistics of what happened?  She's only 8 years old.

Luckily, kids' minds move like a flash.  Brianna and Maddie quickly lapse into silliness.  They get so giddy they almost tip their own scales from NICE toward NAUGHTY!


My friend Shelley’s nephew Casey has a very insightful take on the NAUGHTY vs. NICE idea.  Especially for a 4-year-old.  (Shelley let me borrow this dialogue from her Facebook post.   I swiped the photo, too!)

Grandma to Casey:  Are you on the naughty or nice list?

Casey Probably I’m on both.

Shelley points out the cool Yin-Yang workings of his mind.

Even so young, he knows it's best to have all his bases covered!


Mile Marker 856:

'Tis the season to be jolly.

I was planning to end this post with Casey's words.  It's comforting to believe we have control over our world, just by acting in a certain way.

But this month, we've all watched NAUGHTY and NICE battle it out.  People suffer.  School kids and teachers are full of life one day and gone the next.

Horrific things happen to NICE people.

When I arrive at PT this week, Deb sits me down on a mat.

She tells me Joanna has died.

NICE described Joanna perfectly.  When our PT sessions overlapped.  I’d arrive just as she was hugging Deb goodbye.

They must be really close!   I'd think each time I saw their embrace.

Until Joanna started hugging me, too.

In our spare moments between therapy, Joanna and I found things in common.  We both lived in South Philly and loved the Jersey shore.  She was a kindergarten teacher, too -- until illness took over.

When we talked about our uneven gaits or how hard it was to get out in the morning, Joanna rolled her eyes and smiled at me, like these were secrets we shared.

Over time, I saw Joanna less and less.  Deb kept me posted with stories.  She told me about Joanna's enormous shoe collection.  How she wanted to learn to walk in high heels again!

Joanna's illness took away many things.  But not her kindness and spirit.


I just can't stop thinking about NAUGHTY and NICE.  And the randomness of it all.

At home that evening, I fish out Joanna’s red wristband – the one she gave me last year, just before the holiday season began.

I slip it on next to my own Thousand Miles green one.  My mind wanders back to our talks on the mats and between the parallel bars.  I think about Joanna's 32 years of life.  About how our paths intersected only in small moments, but about the deep impact she left behind.

An hour or so later, I glance down at my wrist.  Joanna’s wristband has wrapped itself around mine.  Embracing it completely, just like one of her hugs.

Late in the night, I hear a new song on my Pandora station.  It so embodies the last few miles that I want to play it over and over again.

In the spirit of Joanna -- who expressed love every time I saw her -- I’m sharing it with you.

Consider it an extra serving of NICE this holiday season.  Because it really does matter.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjFgkAZq4zc

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Moving Days


Mile Marker 836:

If I told you my computer’s been buried at the bottom of a box, would you believe me?

For 2 weeks now, I’ve unpacked box after box of neatly wrapped surprises.  They’re nestled in newspaper and bound with bubble wrap.  And when I open them here – in the new apartment – they’re like tiny presents.

I’ve got many more to go.  But even among the chaos, this place is bright.

There are no stairs to climb.  The washer and dryer are not in the basement.   When I tie up a trash bag, it drops neatly into a chute at the end of the hall.  And when I head out for the day, I ride the elevator down to the car, waiting in a heated garage.  (Hear what I'm sayin', fellow city dwellers?!)

Everything is on one level.  Nothing is off-limits to crutches.  My Upstairs Life is over.

“It’s just so EASY,” I tell my friend Bosco.  “Everything’s so SIMPLE here.”

“It’s been a long time since you've used those words,” she says.

She's right.


But moving is never easy.

My last day at Jeff...
Andy and Mark
help me get packed up!
Exactly 2 years ago this week, I was transferred from Jefferson Hospital to Magee Rehab Hospital.

When I found out I'd go by ambulance, I overflowed with tears of PANIC.  At that time, less than 7 weeks after the accident, the tiniest thought or sound or sensation sent me careening back to that moment of impact -- my body against the truck.  And all the frightening moments that came after.

I feared that being in an ambulance again would release a flood of those flashbacks.

When the paramedics arrived at my room with the stretcher, I tried to hold it together.  I made them promise not to turn on the siren.  They agreed.

"Can my brother ride with me?" I asked.  

Mark stood by the stretcher.  Even if they'd said no, he couldn't have left my side.  I had a death-grip on his hand!

They said he could ride up front, and I started to protest.

But at that instant, it seemed every nurse on the unit stepped into the hallway.  They clapped their hands.  They wished me well and waved goodbye as the paramedics wheeled me out.  A standing ovation.  What a farewell!

Outside, I inhaled my first breath of December air.   With a few smooth movements, I was loaded into the back of the ambulance.  

Then I saw the paramedic give a quick, almost imperceptible nod to Mark.  He jumped in the back with me.

I gripped his hand all the way to the rehab hospital.


The move to this new apartment was nowhere near as traumatic, but it was difficult in its own way.  

Brother Steve to the
rescue!
There were weeks of packing, cleaning, and organizing that involved the entire family.


Then, there were days of stumbling over half-filled boxes.

  

Yes, that's a dresser
going out a window...

And finally, there was a morning of furniture-moving that resembled an epic performance of Cirque du Soleil.

Bravo!  Bravo!

But the hardest part was saying goodbye.

Once the house was empty, I stood out in the garden, the only part of the place that still seemed alive.  I thought about how much I loved my home.  How I'd painted its walls and arranged its rooms.  How I'd planted flowers and herbs.  How I'd imagined a future here.

This was where I started out on November 9th -- the morning everything changed.  It's where I showered and dressed.  Where I buckled my bike helmet.  Where I unlocked my bike and put my backpack in the saddlebag.

In my mind, it will always be the last place I was WHOLE.


Some people say tomorrow, December 21, 2012, will bring the end of the world.  

But in an article I just read, a modern-day Mayan says we're missing the point.  It's not the end of the world, he explains.  It's the end of an era.  He says he's looking forward to seeing what the next era will bring.

So am I.

I'm now 16 blocks north, in the oldest part of the city.  

Yet it feels like a new world.

I can walk to restaurants and shops.  Even go out for an evening stroll!

Like my neighbor Betsy's
holiday decorations?

Yes, it's the start of a new era -- complete with an elevator and indoor parking.  (Maybe not for the Mayans, but for me!)

And, of course, there's no telling what's inside the next box....

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Something to Chase


Mile Marker 812:

Swipe, whisper, tap.  
Swipe, whisper, tap.  
Swipe, whisper, tap

This is the sound of my Genium climbing stairs.  There’s a swipe against the floor as I pull back in my socket.  A whispery glide as I flex my hip to raise the leg.   A soft tap as my foot lands on the next step. 

Except when I miss.

Clunk!

That's the sound of my carbon fiber foot crashing into the stair riser.

The Genium is an intricate piece of machinery.  When I walk, it senses the angle of the ground.  It measures the speed of each step.  When I move from pavement to grass -- or step in a pothole -- it recalculates.  It even locks in place so I can bend at the sink to brush my teeth!

A stair-climbing mode sets the Genium apart from other microprocessor knees.  When most amputees ascend stairs, they drag their prosthetic leg up behind them.  The Genium allows the user to climb more naturally step-over-step.  The trick is telling it to.

That’s where the swipe comes in.  Or -- if you swipe too early, too late, too hard, or too light -- the clunk !

Swiping up stairs requires timing, strength, and skill.  You pull back in the socket, sweeping the ball of your foot against the floor.  (Imagine wiping dog poop from the bottom of your shoe.)  Then you lift your thigh high, as if pedaling a bike.

A good swipe gets your foot up to the next step.  A bad swipe is like jamming your toe into a block of cement.  Luckily it’s a prosthetic toe.

My progress with stairs is slow.  And discouraging.  My muscles aren't strong enough.  My legs are too short.  The swiping motion triggers my ankle blades.  I have enough excuses to build a stairway to the moon.

I can only do the shortest set of stairs, and even those, not very well.  By the second or third swipe, my adductor muscle just gives up.  My leg circumducts outward like I’m swinging it around a puddle.   To compensate, I use my arm to tug myself up the railing.  It’s the only way I can get enough height to make it to the next step.  And sometimes, I just miss the swipe all together.  Watch.  It's not exactly pretty...


video


To boost morale, PT Deb arranges a little healthy competition.  And, as it turns out, INSPIRATION.

When I enter the stairwell, Chase, an above-knee amputee, is halfway up a long flight of stairs.  I met Chase a while ago at Prosthetic Innovations.  At the time, he told me he was trying ice hockey.  (Yes, cool.)  I'm prepared to be impressed again.

And I am.  Chase advances his Genium to each step in a straight line, not with a squiggly dance like I do.  He uses the railing for balance, not as a tow rope.  When he goes up it looks effortless.  But his beads of sweat tell me it's not.  It's just designed to look that way.  Check it out...



video


"His legs are longer!" I joke to Deb.

"You'll do it," she says.

It's true.  Chase is physically stronger than I am.  Each step he takes is determined and skillful.  And -- short jokes aside -- he does have longer legs.  (He's got a prosthetic arm too, if you want to get technical.)

But above all, it's his COURAGE I admire most.

A former firefighter, Chase is now training to become an EMT.  While my goal is to climb step-over-step, his goal is to climb step-over-step carrying a 40-pound backpack of lifesaving equipment!


For several sessions, I swipe repeatedly onto a single low step.  To strengthen my adductor and hip flexor, Deb wraps a resistance band around my socket. 

“Ok, now swipe,” she says.

I pull back in the socket and hike my leg toward the stairs.  She pulls against me, holding the band taut.  We repeat the exercise several times.  When she finally releases the elastic, it’s like a sling shot – I get so much height, my foot lands three steps up!

Then she puts me on a rocker platform.  Like a surfer, I sway back and forth, bending alternating knees and trying to balance.  To straighten my Genium, I tighten my adductors and blast my glutes.

I can feel it.  Little by little, I’m getting stronger.  My balance is getting better.  I'm standing straighter.  I’m swiping with more precision and getting more height.

There are still clunks, but fewer of them.

At the end of today's session, I practice climbing up a set of 4 wooden stairs.   I swipe carefully, accurately.  There are railings on both sides, but I’m only using one – and trying not to tug on it.

“Chase better watch out,” I hear from behind.

I turn around.  Deb’s standing at the bottom of the steps.

She watches as I swipe again -- aiming for gentle strength and high lift.  My Genium’s foot lands squarely in the center of the next step.

“Good one,” she says.

 I come down and start over again.  And again.  And again.

A new amputee, Dane, stops by to watch.  It's his second day on his prosthesis.

Swipe, whisper, tap.  
Swipe, whisper, tap.  
Swipe, whisper, tap.
Sw-- Clunk!

That's right, Dane.  There's always something to chase.


Cheers to Chase for showing me how to rock the stairs!
And to Deb for (among many other things) this post's catchy title :)

Friday, November 23, 2012

The View From Above

Mile Marker 792:

"Get the phone!"  Deb yells.

But nothing is ringing.  Unless you count my heart which, at this moment, sounds a lot like a fire alarm.

I glance down -- probably 30 feet -- to where my PT Deb stands, pointing upward.  On the wall above me, a rock juts out.  It's green and shaped like a telephone.

But between me and that rock, there's an arch-shaped scoop in the wall.  I have NO IDEA how to climb through it.

Hanging in the harness, I look down again.

"You can get up there!" Deb shouts.  "Use those glutes!"

So I tighten everything.  I lift my right leg higher, till it hits a rock closer to the indentation.  Then I swing my left arm up.  And finally, I hoist up my Genium.  Amazingly, it lands where it's supposed to.

Victory!
With one more reach, I grab that green phone with my right hand!





Eight weeks have passed since my last surgery, and I'm ready to strengthen my abs again.  I've lost muscle but gained perspective.  It's like I'm peering out the window of an airplane.  The days are still dotted with socket rubs and fatigue, but I'm beginning to get my life back.

At the rehab gym, Deb rigs up a chest harness and I strap on my skates.  Attached to the ceiling, I slip and slide across the room like a puppy whose paws are too big for its body.  If nothing else, I hope I'm FUNNY enough to entertain my fellow patients!

A few days later, Prosthetic Innovations hosts a rock climbing clinic.  Can you believe the last one was back at Mile Marker 44?!

This time, I'm cheered on by pals
Rocco,








Susan,

and Mischa.








PT Deb is there, too.  She knows what I can do and never lets me take the easy way out!


We watch in awe as two other above-knee amputees, Miles and Tom, climb the walls without their prostheses.

Talk about super-human strength!


Hey, who left their
leg over here?!

My own prosthesis stays firmly attached with an elastic power belt.

When it's my turn to climb, I pull with my arms and brace my abs.  I plant my Genium's foot on each rock and fire those glute muscles like crazy.

But that's only a small piece of what propels me upward.  Most of it rises from the ground BELOW -- encouragement from a team that boosts me with their voices!

At the end of the 700's, I feel HIGHER than when I started.  And my Genium has battle scars to prove it!



Mile Marker 800:

I launch the 800's on the set of Channel 10 News.

Next to me is Byron, a prosthetist from Ottobock, the company that created the Genium.  And on my other side sits Lori Wilson, a newscaster whose smile calms my nerves.

We're promoting an event called Ottobock Live, happening in Philly that evening.   I'm jittery but ready.  I've even smoothed the Genium's rock-climbing wounds with Vaseline!

I'm prepared to talk about my PT goals, how I'm trying to run and skate again.  I'm prepared to thank my therapists at Magee and my team at Prosthetic Innovations.  I'm even prepared to describe the health struggles and socket challenges that have plagued me these past 2 years.

But these are not the questions Lori Wilson asks.

Instead she asks what I was thinking when this all happened.  How I felt when I learned I lost my leg.

Even 2 years later, those words don't come easily.  The feelings won't fit in the space of a sentence or two.

Still, I'm glad she asks.

Lying on that cold pavement -- staring helplessly into the faces of paramedics and bystanders -- I could never have imagined the vantage point I have today.

How grateful I am to the doctors and nurses who gave me endless doses of compassion and skill.  How thankful to the therapists and prosthetists who day after day equip me with the steps for success.  How indebted to the family and friends who walk alongside me.

I could never have predicted how far I've come.  Or how far I still have to go.

On the ground, it's easy to miss.

But when I look down from above, I can see it all.  800 miles and I'm still reaching HIGHER.


Especially when my team shouts up from below!


Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

THANKS for continuing to walk (and climb) with me!


To see the Channel 10 News clip, click here.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Mile Marker 785:

It is 9:00 a.m. on November 9, 2012.

Exactly 2 years and 2 hours ago -- on a crisp fall morning just like this one -- I pedaled down the bike lane on Washington Avenue.

I wanted to end up here at school.

But I didn't.

That morning at school, there was a phone call from the hospital.  And then in the days and weeks and months that followed, there came prayers and pictures, cards and messages.   So much POSITIVE ENERGY emanated from that elementary school building.  It lit my path to recovery.

Today -- two years later -- it shines even brighter!

500 students crowd together on the gym floor, arms laced around one another, swaying back and forth, singing the school song.  Teachers tuck themselves among their classes.  Parents (including mine!) pack the aisles.  Trustees stand shoulder-to-shoulder along one wall.  I look down into a sea of blue cheering t-shirts.

We are going to WALK.

And unlike 2 years ago, I am here in the middle of it.  To celebrate the community that makes our school a TEAM.

As a group, we file outside through the backdoor of the school building.  Mr. Berman, our awesome gym teacher, leads us with his bright blue Byers Knights sweatshirt.  He maps out the course with our police escort, Officer Todd, and many parent volunteers.

Kindergartner David holds my left hand.  He walks, bounces, and skips along, tugging me from one side to the other.  (New dimensions in physical therapy!)  As we pass the Franklin Institute, I introduce him to my mom.  Right on cue, he asks her, "Do you have a robot leg, too?"

We're up front with a bouquet of green balloons.  But at each intersection, I glance behind us.  Our crowd reaches more than 5 city blocks end to end!

On the Parkway, my mom adopts a group of 1st graders -- or they adopt her.  Jada, in pigtails, chatters on about why it's important to wear a bike helmet.  "You can get a robot leg," she says, "but you can't get a robot brain."  Point well taken.

As we snake closer to the Art Museum, I hear a low rumble from behind.  The 5th and 6th graders suddenly erupt into a stampede -- racing "Rocky-style" up the Art Museum steps!

Does this mean I have to climb them, too?


video

The answer is YES.

It may be the second anniversary of the accident, but there are many FIRSTS on this part of the journey.

It's the first time I face those Art Museum steps -- up and down -- with my prosthesis.  (Thanks to 7th grader Rebecca, for being an excellent spotter!)

It's the first time I cover not one, but two, miles at a stretch.

And it's the first time I walk with the ENTIRE school community.




It is November 9, 2012.  And I did not complete 1000 miles by the 2-year anniversary of the accident.

But then, in a way I did.

500 students x 2 miles = 1000 miles

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK -- This is what our bright blue t-shirts say.  And this is what keeps me going.


Thank you Russell Byers Charter School... for walking with me every step of the way!

Click here to watch our walk and hear our school song!

Special thanks to -- 
HSA for organizing the day, 
Randy B. for leading us, 
Chase and Dad for snapping these photos, 
Philly Police Dept for keeping us safe, 
Krista Y-B. for our beautiful school song, 
and everyone who joined in to make this my BIGGEST WALK EVER!